As with any artist's work, from the historical past or the relative present, whether in Asia, Europe, Africa, America, or the Middle East, there will always be a context by which to describe it. In the case of some artists, the context will be historically evident; in others, it will be constructed or manufactured according to certain theoretical or ideological suppositions. These suppositions may or may not prove accurate in relation to the actual work. But the context operates as a tool whereby ideas achieve popularity and acceptance through conformity to a belief. Such is the world we live in -- the transcultural world of mediated effects that floats between nationalist borders and multinational investment firms. It is a world where the construction of ideologies, whether to the left or to the right, is used to sway the attention of consumers to purchase certain brand-names, to collect certain artists, to endorse one political candidate over another, to fabricate a war for economic gain, or to act in accord with some prescribed statute or trend that guarantees a clear opportunity for advancement.
One would hope that there are still some artists living and working in the world today who are willing to offer an alternative vision to these superficial and predictable practices, and who are willing to offer a new kind of ethical dimension to their practice. This may require a subtle shift of awareness away from the purely aesthetic (cosmetic) approach to reality in order to evolve a non-cynical comment on the world, a comment that restores a sense of hope in the future by confronting the fatigue of “news" reportage and the blatant cynicism of the "popular" world press. To find significance in one's art is neither to deny one's inheritance nor one's culture or history. It is quite the reverse. To find significance in art is to go deeply inside, to search out the crevices of truth within the interstices of memory, and to bring that sense of remembering into the light of day. Significant art is art that signifies memory and its causal connection to history. It comes as an inner-directed experience that takes us through the threshold of despair and through the fragmentation and dislocation of the present to a new level of awareness, a more open way of seeing and a revelation of what is possible.
Indeed, significant art is always a confrontation with the recent past, which, of course, is the situation for the artist from Wuhan, Zeng Fanzhi. Much has been written about his turbulent past as a young boy growing up during the years of Mao's Cultural Revolution, of the humiliation of being denied a red scarf by a local teacher in his school, his life on the street, his observations of bureaucratic life during the years of communism, his youthful travels, and his decision to leave the family printing business and become an artist. To summarize Zeng's early years in such a cursory way is to misrepresent the emotional turmoil that he felt at that time; but rather than repeat what has already been noted by other writers, I will defer to the following statement by the artist during an interview four years ago with the renowned Chinese critic, Li Xiangting: "Before coming to Beijing I had been living in an alley since I was born, where people were stricken by different diseases, and there were various deformities. I can never forget the feelings for them. However, I dress up now wearing suits and ties. I have something deep in my heart. It moves me and can never be wiped out. I will surely express and release it. It is in fact an incontrollable feeling, and it is this feeling that gives birth to these paintings."
The early twentieth century Irish poet William Butler Yeats believed that to realize oneself as an artist, one must be like a warrior who goes deeply within the soul where a struggle ensues, maybe for years, before one emerges victorious. There is a certain risk involved; yet one might also ascertain that there cannot be significant art without a risk. They are always blockages or disappointments, but the struggle must ensue. Such was the case for Zeng Fanzhi.
Today one may discuss Zeng's work in both formal and political terms. Either way, one may find validity. While they may be conflicting points of interpretation, there are also many correspondences. One only has only to look at the relationship between formalism and constructivism in Russia in the early twenties to see that this opposition is, in fact, not always so opposite. To suspend the opposition between the formal and the political aspects of an artist, like Zeng Fanzhi, may breed new and interesting results. It may allow a wider breath of interpretative strategies to evolve in the process, which, in Zeng's case, can be enlightening. For example, there are those who have discussed his Hospital paintings from the early nineties in terms of an expressionist aesthetic, comparing him to the German expressionist Max Beckmann or the gnarled figures of the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Other writers have notes that Zeng followed the style of Socialist Realism as a kind of ironic means of addressing his famous masked figures from the mid-nineties, or in expropriating this style into his two person portraits, including group portraits, where the masks allow a visible release of emotions, where his subjects laugh and joke and smile at one another.
From the perspective of Conceptual art, the context in which an artist's work is written or exhibited plays a significant role in how the public understands the artist's work. There are many ways in which an artist's work can be interpreted and evaluated. The context sets the standard and determines the way in which the artist's intention may be manipulated or understood. One hopes that a clear aesthetic understanding is given priority through the pursuit of criticism over the marketing manipulation that only serves to degrade the importance of the artist's work. The aesthetic context is the basis by which the criterion, or the standard of excellence in a work of art, is understood by the viewer. For those unaccustomed to diversity, Zeng Fanzhi is both a realist and an abstractionist. He paints both the figure and the landscape. While the former is portrayed expressively, in either literal or metaphorical terms, the latter is interpreted in abstract terms. While the tradition of the landscape is indigenous to Chinese culture, that is, prior to the Cultural Revolution, Zeng understands this style of painting as a release from the tensions produced in painting the figure.
Yet the context for painting the figure and the landscape can have Marxian connotations. One may see in Zeng's paintings a quintessential aspect in each mode. Each style is independent, that is, original. The subjects in Zeng's painting are both personal and autonomous. There is camaraderie between the men, between the lovers, even within the larger groups, even with the patients and doctors in the turgid, somewhat dolorous atmosphere of the early Hospital and Meat paintings. Even the conjugation of pat8ients suffering ailments to various degrees and the meat that is situated in the same pictorial field is more than just a semiotic venture. There is a kind of liberation here, and this liberation is in full force, address the previous decades of conformity relegation by the Cultural Revolution. Just as the landscapes from 2002-2003 are liberations from the intensity and concentration of the figure with and without marks – his own psychic journey instrumentalized by the artist and laminated against the years during and after the years of the Cultural Revolution – the large spiraled portraits do much the same. These close-up configurations are less a return to the past than an extension of it, a spawning of new ideas built into a systems of self-portraiture. There are divine impersonations, a release from the recent past, not only in the wake of these tormented years in the artist's life, but an awakening, a waking-up, to the Buddhist heritage of Chinese culture, where ideas of passion and compassion enter into secular life and create a future removed from the despair of individual and social loss.
Even in the drawing of the Last Supper (2001) with the red flags positioned between the person of the artist, there is the hint of a new threshold, a complaint that has not yet fully matured, a understanding that the Marxian past has played a definite role in the artist's history – and that he and his friends, colleagues, and loved ones are all part of it. At this moment, there are on the verge of coming to terms with the past and re-evoked the potential of a future allegory, a narrative that widens the gaps from the closed doors of communism to the self-fulfillment that may become possible. But how will this transition occur? We don not know, and neither does Zeng Fanzhi. Yet we understanding from this eloquence drawing that there is a pivot in history – both psychologically and socially – whereby the past will gradually dissipate as these artists move forward into another era in Chinese history.
In a recent lecture in New York, the French philosopher Alain Badiou: "We have not yet begun the twenty-first century. We must begin the twenty-first century!" One may interpret this is a variety ways. There is a narrative embedded in Marx, as we know. In fact, there are many narratives, and they all find their instrumentality – their praxis – in the he previous century, in the century of Modernity. And what a wretched century is was. So when Badiou talks of beginning again, he means precisely that – and that, by necessity, "we must begin the twenty-first century!" To begin the twenty-first century is not to lose sight of the past so much as to regain another perspective, a perspective that opens another possibility based on a re-investigation of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao – the subjects of Zeng Fanzhi's grisaille paintings in black and white pigment, each adorned with a speck of red near the vocal apparatus. In another, less institutional portrait, entitled Karl Marx, He was born in Germany (2007), the subject is entwined in dense thicket from which he cannot escape. It appears as a study of Marxist psychology in which the logic of dialectical materialism only gets thicker and more turgid. In doing so, theory impedes any final resolution.
Even as the artist critiques dialectical materialism through his series of institutional portraits, which coldly represent the humiliation and suffering of many Chinese people, we cannot forget that fascism also belonged to the twentieth century. What claimed to exist in opposition to marxist values – namely fascism -- also destroyed many lives and imposed unspeakable suffering upon millions of innocent people. In retrospect, fascism was less a counterpoint or panacea to Marx than a barbarian attempt to destroy democracy and socialism. This also requires further investigation by artists, as it has in the work of Hans Haacke, in order to ensure that the conditions by which totalitarianism evolved do not plague the world again. It is important to believe that artists like Zeng Fanzhi can make a difference in terms of how we understand the past in relation to the present. One of the truly brilliant aspects of his art is that his paintings offer the convergence of the two – the past with the present. As we observe his multitude of portraits, institutional settings, and landscapes, it is difficult not to feel the history that stands behind these paintings. It is always there, always on the verge of opening a narrative that reveals the passage of time and gives evidence of psychic pain and yet, in some of his most convincing self-portraits, as in the one where he stands amid the broken watermelons from 1996, there is also a sense of revelatory celebration.
I believe the question posed by this exceptional exhibition of works by one of China's leading artists, is not only directed toward the past – that is, the impact of the Cultural Revolution upon his society today -- but is also asking questions about the future. As we observe the expressions in his portraits, we discover a variety of expressive nuances, ranging from puzzlement to pain, from boredom to determination, from frustrated anger to a distraught sense of anxiety. I choose not to see these expressions as encompassing some sort of formal vocabulary, but as very real expressions that are wary of what is in store for China's future, indeed, for the future of the human beings caught within the throes of globalization. For the moment, it appears that the soporific aspect of advanced communications media encumbers us. The challenge for the future is not how far we can take this technology, but how we can curb its potential threat to human life on all levels – psychological, physical, medical, agricultural, environmental, and cultural. To use the metaphor of the Greek mortal Sisyphus, we are struggling up the mountain with our boulders as we try and accommodate our needs to the technology that is now literally at our fingertips – at any place, at any time. Unlike Sisyphus, however, our boulders are not granite stones. They are dematerialized boulders; therefore, we have the disadvantage of not being able to feel their potential weight if our attempts to make the climb. Our market economy – the economic globalization of the present moment – appears to have ironically fettered our ability to communicate with one another in relation to the consequences of our actions, namely, the well-being of all residents on planet Earth. We have reached a stasis where history appears to have ended. In spite of believing that we are advancing, there is, in fact, very little forward motion. If you should distrust any of these remarks, I would recommend taking a second look at the portraits in this exhibition, a more concentrated investigation. Maybe you will read them in a way that is different from my own. That is the freedom of art to express what it wants. There are many contexts and ideological references by which one can determine meaning in art. Even so, it is the experience of the encounter that weighs heavily in the work of Zeng Fanzhi. It weighs heavily, but it also transforms the matter of painting into lightness. This is why the artist remains significant today: His paintings never stay in one place. They elevate our sense of reality, and they reflect who we are.
Robert C. Morgan is an international art critic, writer, artist, curator, and art historian. He holds a doctoral degree from New York University, and currently teaches at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, he was a Fulbright senior scholar in the Republic of Korea. In 2007, he served a juror for the first International Sculpture Symposium in Tehran. A contributor to many international journals and magazines, he is the author of The End of the Art World (1998).